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With the advent of DVD, there has been a glut of music documentaries in the past decade. Many are of the “this band is so awesome” school, but some of the most interesting and relevant ones are those that profiled not a single band, but a particular scene or movement. With few exceptions (24 Hour Party People, the upcoming Pirate Radio), feature films continue to be Great Men biopics, which almost invariably disappoint. The value of the films that deal with a larger movement, be it punk, grunge or no wave, is that it provides a context for the bands. No band exists in isolation and these films show how a city or an aesthetic influenced the music. Punk has received more than its share of screen time, from broad, somewhat superficial movies about punk, like Punk: Attitude, to ones that focus on specific branches like hardcore or no wave. The newly released DVD You Weren’t There is one of the more illuminating, partly because it deals with a scene that hasn’t become as overexposed as NYC or London. Chicago punk is much less known, if only because the city never produced a breakout band like the Ramones, the Clash or X.

The filmmakers don’t take any new approaches to the genre, relying primarily on a familiar mix of music, photographs, live footage and interviews with a wide variety of musicians, promoters, DJs, artists, scenesters and record store owners. Yet because the story is little known, there’s a freshness to it. I was familiar with very few of the bands, which include Tutu & the Pirates, who had a song called “I Wanna be a Janitor,” Strike Under, Rights of the Accused, Da, Articles of Faith, the Effigies, Naked Raygun and Big Black, the latter of whom may the best known, if only because of Steve Albini’s production work with alternative rock icons like the Pixies and Nirvana. Most of the musicians interviewed avoid the sticky nostalgia and idealization of the scene that often comes with things like this, which is refreshing. After all, it’s not very punk to blab about how punk you are/were. Some aren’t even afraid to talk shit and one of the most enjoyable segments is a rivalry between Articles of Faith singer Vic Bondi and the always acid-tongued Albini. They both recall Albini criticizing Bondi’s band, his audience and his guitarist, who looked like Santana, and an incident where Albini was handing out fliers at an Articles of Faith show and displayed some “cry baby shit,” in Bondi’s words. Bondi regrets not kicking his ass, then proceeds to challenge Albini to a fight, while Albini says “I really couldn’t give a shit now.” Now that’s punk.

Little else is so contentious. The film begins with the punk explosion of the ’70s and Chicago’s moribund music scene. The city is characterized as “segregated, corrupt,” “conservative” and “tight ass.” A common insult for those who were considered punk was “faggot” or just “Devo.” Ground zero was a gay club on Halstead called La Mere Vipere, which began hosting punk nights and around which an eclectic, oddball scene developed. It later burned down in an unexplained fire. Other milestones include the opening of the Wax Trax! Record store, out of which the label associated with industrial grew, but first released Strike Under.

Even if it was more insular than better-known scenes in L.A. or NYC, it had similar set of problems, from police harassment to bad press to violence at shows. As one musician says, “the influence of hardcore on Chicago was a bad one.” It’s a sad, but familiar arc in music: something starts as a refuge for misfits and weirdos, gets larger and then gets invaded by the very people they were trying to escape. Various musicians deplore the punk clichés and dumb masculine influence that started to creep in; one calls the later, more violent shows a “knucklehead slugfest.” Even if did become larger, little Chicago punk reached the mainstream and much of it is harder, more abrasive and less poppy than better-known punk. Yet it wasn’t without a sense of humor: one band called themselves Mentally Ill, an early version of Naked Raygun wore tinfoil on stage and a band called Negative Element did a song called “Anti-PacMan.”

As with many films like this, the live footage (of which there is plenty) is the highlight. There’s also a great clip from a Donahue show about punk in which a group of punks confronts the hostile middle-class, middlebrow audience, who criticize their haircuts and negativity. A guy who could be the evil jock from an ’80s movie states he wants to hear “music that says something,” without seeing the irony that early punk was an attempt to get away from so much of the insipid music of the ’70s and to challenge the culture of the Reagan years. Another gem of a clip is teen punk band Verboten playing a cable access show that looks a lot like the set of Wayne’s World. If it’s lacking something, it’s some critics or journalists who could offer perhaps a greater historical perspective and discussion of these bands’ ongoing influence. Since it stops at 1984, the legacy of these bands is left unexplored.

Most of the interviewees are smart, articulate and good natured. The only sourness that really creeps in is when some of them are asked to assess the current state of punk. Predictably, most lambaste it as little more than a fashion statement and as music “for jocks and cheerleaders.” One musician bluntly states, “Get your own fucking scene.” While it’s certainly appropriate to attack mainstream mall punk, they seem to overlook that punk still continues to inspire idiosyncratic underground bands too and is as important a reference point for contemporary bands as the blues were for bands of the ’50s and ’60s. At least Jeff Pezzati (Naked Raygun, Big Black) points out that punk is now rooted in the suburbs and once something’s there, it sticks around for a long time.

The general consensus is that Chicago remains unfairly left out of the punk annals and continues to be a “red headed step child.” This informative, entertaining and well-made documentary goes a long way to remedy that omission.

by Lukas Sherman
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